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South Africa Charges Businessman in Arms Deal Probe - 2001-10-10

A businessman in South Africa has been charged with corruption in an ongoing probe into a multi-billion-dollar arms deal.

Michael Woerfel was released on bail of about $1,000. He was not asked to enter a plea in response to the charges against him, which include corruption and forgery.

Mr. Woerfel is a suspended managing director of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS).

The charges against him stem from the massive discount he gave to a senior ruling party official on a luxury four-by-four vehicle. The recipient of the car, former African National Congress chief whip Tony Yengeni, is also facing corruption charges.

EADS received sub-contracts under a controversial arms procurement deal overseen by Mr. Yengeni's committee. Mr. Yengeni and other senior officials have denied that his acquisition of the car had anything to do with the arms deal.

Mr. Woerfel refused to speak to reporters after his court appearance in Cape Town Wednesday.

The businessman was out of the country last week when authorities issued a warrant for his arrest. Some observers have expressed surprise that he returned to South Africa to face the charges. They believe it is possible Mr. Woerful might make a deal to testify against other people targeted in the corruption probe.

His company has admitted providing heavily discounted cars to more than 30 influential people in government and private industry.

According to local news reports, German police are also seeking his arrest.

Meanwhile, authorities searched properties Tuesday in South Africa, Mauritius and France in connection with the arms deal. Police in all three countries raided businesses and homes belonging to officials of Nkobi Holdings, another company linked to the weapons procurement.

Critics both inside and outside the ruling party have said they hope the arrests do not stop with Mr. Yengeni and Mr. Woerfel. They say it is important to root out corruption no matter how high it goes.

The man heading the investigation will not say whether anyone else is likely to be charged. Percy Sonn, chief of the elite Scorpions police unit, told reporters in Pretoria the Scorpions are investigating specific leads, but he would give no further details.